Thursday, August 18, 2016

Hill Farmstead Brewery

Vermont Craft Beer Pilgrimage, 2

The So Cal Craft Beer Blogger (SCCBB) recently had the opportunity to visit the Northeast Kingdom, with friend and beer guru, Sir Ted of Sonoma. 

After the two paladins paid their respects to The Alchemist in Stowe, their quest took them to a place that might be considered the Holy Land or, looked at from the Saracen perspective, the Mecca of Breweries: Hill Farmstead Brewing, rated Number 1 Brewery in the World -- again -- for 2015 (
according to

As indicated in Part 1 of this chronicle, the SCCBB pretty much learns anything that's new and exciting about beer from Sir Ted. The journey to Hill Farmstead Brewery required a supreme exercise of faith on the SCCBB's part, mostly because it's in the middle of nowhere, and the last five miles are on a seemingly abandoned dirt road. Below is the view from the parking lot, which was PACKED on a Wednesday afternoon.

Sir Ted, a veteran crusader and zymurgist, recognized Shaun Hill, Hill Farmstead's founder and head brewer, as the dark lord wandered through the Farmstead's retail space, making sure the troops passed muster. A Vanity Fair interview from a couple of years ago gives a pretty good background on Shaun (Parental Advisory: Explicit Language). 

Shaun and Sir Ted exchanged pleasantries, then Shaun introduced us to Andrew Peterson, whose company, Peterson Quality Malts, malts grain for beer. Andrew said there are only 42 maltsters in the United States, and he is the only one in Vermont. How can you tell when a brewer has used fresh malt? we asked.

"The difference in taste is the difference between home-baked bread and store-bought," he responded. Here's an article on Andrew from Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine. (Rated "G": For general audiences).

Sir Ted and the SCCBB sampled a number of Hill Farmstead's draft offerings, finally settling on a growler each of an American IPA called "Susan," named after Grandfather Edward Hill's sister, and "Harlan" an American Pale Ale, "dry-hopped exclusively with Columbus hops," and named for Grandfather Edward's "slightly more aggressive alter ego." Intriguing.... 

Hill Farmstead has a very eclectic brewing program, with some super-artisan yeast brews available only in bottles. Sir Ted, an accomplished yeast master in his own right, collected some yeast from the bottom of a bottle of "Arthur" for further investigation once he returned to Sonoma's green and pleasant land.

Sir Ted, Veteran Crusader and Zymurgist

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Alchemist

Vermont Craft Beer Pilgrimage 1

The So Cal Craft Beer Blogger (SCCBB) recently had the opportunity to visit the Northeast Kingdom, God's Country, not far from Burlington, where Vermonters have "felt the Bern" for decades.

First stop was The Alchemist, which opened its new 30-barrel production facility and visitors center in Stowe, Vermont less than two months ago. The original production facility in nearby Waterbury (where the original brewpub and 15-barrel brewhouse have been run by John and Jen Kimmich since 2003) was destroyed by super-storm Irene in August 2011.

Your So Cal Craft Beer Blogger is going to come clean: he'd never heard of The Alchemist, and he'd never heard of their signature beer, Heady Topper, before making this trip. It was his friend and beer guru, Sir Ted of Sonoma, who insisted the two knights errant undertake this pilgrimage.

"It was his friend and beer guru, Sir Ted of Sonoma, who insisted
the two knights errant undertake this pilgrimage."
What Sir Ted knew, and the SCCBB did NOT, was that Alchemist Focal Banger (IPA, pictured) and Heady Topper (Double IPA) were ranked 3 and 4 in the world by Sir Ted favors the Heady Topper, while the SCCBB is partial to Focal Banger, which beer raters describe as having Juicy Fruit Gum notes, along with a light bready sweetness in the malt.

Ted, whose home brewpub used to be Russian River in Santa Rosa, California, until it got so hip that he and his lady fair could no longer sup there, was familiar with the crazed frenzy of fanatics lining up to get their allotted beer quota at the Alchemist retail store (two four-packs apiece of Focal, Heady, and their hop-bomb, Crusher, if memory serves). The parking lot, mid-week in late July, was mobbed with a steady stream of cars with New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine plates. This is because the Alchemist does not distribute beyond a 30-mile radius of its production facilities.

The new brewery produces about 180 barrels of beer per week,
or about 9,000 barrels per year (Photo from The Alchemist blog)
The SCCBB is a graphomaniac, and loves symbols, so he was particularly fascinated by The Alchemist's logo. Deep research revealed that it is a stylistic reimagining of the ancient alchemical symbol for "fermentation," based on the astrological glyph for Capricorn, which happens to be Sir Ted's Sun Sign.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

New Breweries in Ventura - Part 3

Topa Topa

This is the last of three posts on a recent visit to three new breweries in Ventura that the former Ventura Craft Beer Examiner visited and sampled.

Located at 104 Thompson Blvd in Ventura and founded just over a year ago in June 2015, Topa Topa is the brewery closest to Anacapa, the only legitimate craft brewery the VCBE discovered during his heyday, back in 2010. Which is not the same as saying it was the only brewery in existence in Ventura at the time, nor that Anacapa is legitimate today.

Topa Topa shares a parking lot with the Ventura Surf Shop, which does NOT appreciate brewpub patrons parking in their spaces. On the recent June evening that the So Cal Craft Beer Bloggers visited, there was a man giving us the evil eye when we dared to park in a surf shop space. We briefly thought about the Second Amendment, lax gun laws, and how cheaply the National Rifle Association was able to buy the United States Congress. (FYI, the NRA has not apparently contributed to Ventura's Congresswoman Julia Brownley). 

So, we backed out of the surf shop space and, fortuitously, squeezed into a space between a Maserati and a Tesla parked at rakish angles in front of the functional hipster Topa Topa brewpub.

Reeling from our brush with possible gun violence, we quickly downed a pint each of Chief Peak IPA and Vic Secret Single Hop IPA. Here's how the eminently worthy Chief Peak is fancifully described on Topa Topa's website:
From shrubland to woodland to highland, you’ve creekcrossed and switchbacked through it all today. You pause on the trail for a moment and crack open a Chief Peak. The piney hops are first to arrive. The tropical tones of passion fruit, orange, and gooseberry aren’t far behind. Watch as the sky blends from orange to blue. Look out on the valley and trace the contours of the mountain. Breathe in the thinning air, wipe the sweat from your brow, and take another well-earned sip.
One of the beer sommeliers in residence was kind enough to share her fact sheet on Chief Peak. Clocking in at 7% ABV (alcohol by volume) and 75% IBU (international bitterness units), with an SRM (standard reference method) color of 5 (basically golden, like the California sunset), the fact sheet informed us that Chief Peak was a "dank West Coast style IPA with big grapefruit and tropical fruit notes."

The beer sommelier did not have info on the single-hop brew, Vic Secret (maybe because it was a secret?), but it was also a highly worthy beer. A brewer friend in NorCal informed us that Vic Secret is "a lately hip and beloved hop from ... somewhere with a lot of sheep." In fact, according to Hopslist, Vic Secret is from Victoria, Australia and had its first commercial harvest in 2013.

In the So Cal Craft Beer Bloggers' opinion, Topa Topa seemed to be the brewery to watch—we felt their ambitions were long range and veered toward the kind of greatness we'd found in Russian River, Drake's, and Deschutes, to name just a few favorite West Coast breweries. Topa Topa's head brewer, Casey Harris, worked at Stone in San Diego previous to this gig—as senior brewer, no less.

A Word on the Name. The SCCB Bloggers have done a lot of research on the original inhabitants of the Central Coast, and so were drawn particularly to this brewery's name. It comes from the indigenous name for a local mountain range that contains a California condor sanctuary. Sespe Creek, which flows out of the Topatopa Mountains, is one of the last wild rivers in Southern California.

New Breweries in Ventura - Part 2

Made West

This is the second of three posts by the former Ventura Craft Beer Examiner on new breweries in Ventura.

The aesthetic at Made West, located at 1744 Donlon Street in Ventura, is decidedly "industrial." With beers named "Standard," "Pale," "IPA," and "Classic," the emphasis is on the beer, not the marketing.

In contrast to the artful, hand-drawn menus at both Poseidon and Topa Topa, the lineup for Made West was announced via the kind of old school fluorescent menu board the So Cal Craft Beer blogger remembers from independent meat markets and drive-ins.

The highlight beer of this tasting was the Prospect, a vanilla coffee porter with "a heavy dosing of whole Madagascar Vanilla beans and 100 pounds of single origin coffee beans from El Salvador," roasted by Prospect Coffee Roasters, located on the other side of Telephone Road from Made West.

Made West beer is currently distributed by Stone in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.

Marketing and Art Director Scott Chenoweth has the best beard on the Made West team.

On a personal note: according to Made West's Facebook feed, the brewery opened this year on January 30, which just happens to be the So Cal Craft Beer Blogger's birthday. Coincidence? Perhaps.

New Breweries in Ventura - Part 1

Poseidon Brewing Company

The former Ventura Craft Beer Examiner (VCBE) -- now the So Cal Craft Beer Blogger -- recently spent a lovely weekend in Ventura drinking fresh new Ventura Craft Beer. This is the first of three posts.

Located at 5777 Olivas Park Drive in Ventura, Poseidon Brewing makes some very worthy craft beer. Two standouts from the SCCB's tasting of ALL the brews in the lineup above were Bubblehead Blood Orange Pale Ale, which was like a fruit punch in beer form, and Dirty Diver Double IPA, which was smooth like butter. We've tasted nothing else like it.

Here are the tasting notes on these two from the brewery's website:
Bubblehead Blood Orange Pale Ale ~ New Batch Released May 21, 2016 ~ American Pale Ale; 5.7% ABV; 32 IBUs; Hop forward, dry, oranges/floral
Bubblehead Blood Orange Pale Ale is a citrus-centric American Pale Ale. We dry hopped this beauty with Cascade hops and plenty of blood orange zest from our friends at Casitas Valley Farm. Strong citrus and mild pine aromas are present and the malt profile is mild with a solid hop bite in the finish. If you love flavorful pale ales, this is a must have. 
Dirty Diver Double IPA - Mosaic ~ Released June 4, 2016 ~ Double India Pale Ale; 8.6% ABV; 100+ IBUs; Hop forward, bitter, tropical fruit/tangerines

For this Double IPA, we focused on extracting as much hop flavor as possible without extracting excessive hop bitterness. We used over three pounds per barrel of Columbus, Cascade, Centennial and Mosaic hops. We kept the water profile free of minerals to deceptively decrease bitterness and soften the mouth feel. Orange in color with hop aromas of mangoes, guavas and tangerines, Dirty Diver ~ Mosaic is sure to satisfy your craving for hops. 
Poseidon opened on August 11, 2014 and all we can say is that we don't know why it took us so long to get there! Co-proprietor Vinita told us that the brewery currently has a very limited distribution footprint. "You can find us in Ventura at Barrelhouse 101 and Saloon BBQ Company," she said, "and in Ojai at The Deer Lodge. We just started on tap at Brasserie Communautaire in Oxnard. And then we're on several rotating taps, including Two Trees Cafe in Ventura, Newhall Refinery in Newhall, Ojai Beverage Company in Ojai, Golden Nugget Pub in Simi Valley and Villa Wine Bar and Kitchen in Santa Barbara."

Finally, you gotta check out Crew Member Ginny's amazing tattoos. The Navy SEABEE Veteran has deployed in Africa, Spain, Japan, Iraq, Kuwait, the Philippines, and Guam, among other places, and claims to have enjoyed beer from over 190 countries. Just think about that for a minute. How many beer-producing countries can you name? How many places can you imagine beer is made? That still leaves about 100 countries that the SCCB Blogger cannot even comprehend as places you can say you've enjoyed beer from.

Thursday, May 26, 2016


Santa Rosa, CA and Paso Robles, CAAfter a lengthy courtship, Russian River Brewing Company and Firestone Walker Brewing Company announced today the imminent arrival of STiVO—an immaculately conceived mashup of their respective craft pilsners, STS and Pivo.

A collaborative beer made by Russian River owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo and Firestone Walker’s Brewmaster Matt Brynildson, STiVO Keller Pils was brewed to commemorate the 2016 Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest on June 4. It will be released at the fest, and will thereafter be available for a limited time at select draft accounts in Firestone Walker markets nationwide.

Both brewers say that STiVO is as much a testament to personal friendship as professional collaboration.

“This beer has 10 years in the making,” said Brewmaster Matt Brynildson. “Vinnie and I respect each other immensely as brewers, but more important, we’re good friends.”

Brynildson noted that when the Cilurzos built their brewery, Vinnie Cilurzo would call regularly seeking technical input. Conversely, when Firestone Walker established its Barrelworks wild ale facility, the brewing team leaned on Cilurzo for his expertise. Cilurzo even gifted his original bottling line to Barrelworks. In 2014, when Russian River was undergoing a brewhouse expansion, Firestone Walker temporarily brewed Pliny the Elder to help keep the taps flowing (“That was the ultimate collaboration,” Brynildson said). Both brewers are also founding members of Hop Quality Group.

“It had to be inspired…”

Naturally, over the years, pressure began to mount with regard to a potential collaboration brew. “People have been asking us for years about a collaboration beer, but we never wanted to force it,” Brynildson said. “It had to be inspired.”

That inspiration finally struck when they began discussing the idea of a collaborative pilsner to commemorate the 2016 Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest.

“Neither Matt nor I started out as pilsner brewers when we each got our start in the craft beer industry, but it’s a style we are both passionate about,” Cilurzo said.

Added Brynildson, “I think people were expecting us to come out with something like Pliny The Elder-meets-Double Jack on steroids, or some extreme barrel-aged beer. But it ultimately came down to us wanting to make the type of beer we personally like to drink when we’re hanging out.”

The result is STiVO, a happily arranged marriage of the STS and Pivo recipes. “Our water philosophies and malt profiles were already essentially the same, and our yeast strains were pretty similar, so it really came down to how we wanted to handle the hops, and the overall weight of the beer we wanted to make,” Brynildson said.

“Although many pilsners from around the world have influenced me, none give me more inspiration than Pivo,” said Cilurzo. “Blending our two pilsner recipes to create this special brew for the 2016 Firestone Invitational seemed only natural. Natalie’s and my friendship with Matt and the Firestone Walker family is at the very heart of this beer.”

Cilurzo and Brynildson ultimately split the hops down the middle between Pivo’s German Saphir hops and STS’s Alsatian Aramis hops, both of which belong to the new wave of European hop cultivars. 

“These hops are more similar than they are different, and they blend really well together,” Brynildson said. “They don’t taste like fruity American hops, but they’re not like Old World Hallertau hops, either. They’re perfect for this idea of a new age hoppy pilsner.”

Cilurzo and Brynildson also bumped up the front-end malt for a slightly higher gravity and a resulting ABV of 6.3%, a distinct notch above the 5.3% of STS and Pivo while still remaining dry and super drinkable. Also, like STS, STiVO was racked to kegs unfiltered and will be presented in the classic keller style, naturally carbonated and slightly hazy.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Ten Things You Probably Didn't Know About Craft Beer*

*(But Probably Should)

Even if you knew some of these things, it always helps to have a refresher.

Pliny the Elder, 23-79 AD
1. Hops have antibiotic properties
The American Botanical Council
affirms that hops have long been known to inhibit the growth of bacteria and keep beer from spoiling. That’s why more hops were used in the pale ale the British shipped to their outposts in India during the Raj, which is where the “I” in IPA comes from.

2. Pliny the Elder didn’t “discover” hops
On his blog, British writer Martyn Cornell provides an excellent discussion about the identification and naming of hops. Cornell says that the Roman author of Naturalis Historia was not the first person to mention hops in his writing, as the Russian River Brewery once claimed as the source of their name for their universally-esteemed double IPA. Cornell does allow that Pliny may have been talking about hops when he described lupus salictarius, or “wolf willow.” We have Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus for the Latin name we know them by today, humulus lupulus. By the way, lupulus doesn’t refer to wolves, but comes from the medieval Latin name for hops.

3. Hops and Cannabis are related.
Popular Science
author Martha Harbison confirms this statement, and provides the chemical formulae to back it up. By the early 2000s, DNA sequencing showed that the two plants were so closely related that they should properly be referred to as Cannabinaceae. And yes, as Lagunitas’ head brewer Jeremy Marshall once told me, “Everyone’s made weed beer at some point in his brewing career.”

4. Some brewers intentionally use bacteria to make “Wild Beer.”
The secret to a lot of Belgian-style beer is a bacteria called Brettanomyces, or “Brett” for short. The name means “British fungus,” by the way. It takes a master to brew a good beer using Brett, which is why it took Belgian monks over a thousand years to perfect the process. leads homebrewers through the steps to working successfully with Brett.

5. Stone Brewing also distributes beer.
Like the beer industry itself, beer distribution in the United States was the province of a few giant distribution networks that,
according to Stone, didn’t understand craft beer or how to sell it. Stone stepped into the breach, establishing their own distribution networks and today distributes not just their own beer, but that of many of the great craft breweries we take for granted today.

6. Prohibition had long range effects on the American brewing industry.
Before Prohibition, which lasted from 1920-1933, the United States boasted 1,200 breweries. Until President Jimmy Carter signed the Cranston act in 1978, there were fewer than 200 breweries in our great land. The Cranston act deregulated the beer industry, which allowed craft brewers to flourish, according the
The Economist. Today, there are nearly 3,500 breweries in operation.

7. Brewers don’t have to tell you what they put in their beer. Public health lawyer Michelle Simon says, “Ingredient labeling on food products and non-alcoholic beverages is required by the Food and Drug Administration. But a whole other federal agency regulates beer, and not very well. The Department of Treasury – the same folks who collect your taxes – oversees alcoholic beverages.” So, what’s in your Bud, Miller, Coors, Corona, or Stella Artois? According to, a bunch of genetically modified corn products like high fructose corn syrup as well as GMO rice, caramel coloring, propylene glycol (used in antifreeze), and isinglass (derived from fish bladders).

8. That “craft beer” you’re drinking might not really be a craft beer. Shock Top, Goose Island, and Kona are owned and controlled by Anheuser Busch InBev, and Blue Moon is brewed by MillerCoors, according to Time Magazine.

9. Budweiser doesn’t always come from Budweis in Bohemia. Hamburgers originally came from the German city of Hamburg. Wieners originally came from Wien (Vienna). Pilsener is a lager beer style associated with the Czech city of Plzen. And, by rights, Budweiser should associated with Budweis, aka Budejovice in the Czech Republic. Actually, since 1907, beer brewed in Budweis could not be sold in North America as “Budweiser,” thanks to an agreement between Bohemian brewers and Anheuser Busch. Luckily, a recent court ruling stipulates that Budějovický Budvar, the maker of the Czech Budweiser, has exclusive control of the Budweiser name brand in the European Union.

10. Over 90 beer styles are judged at the Great American Beer Festival. You’ve heard of lager, ale, and stout. How about German altbier, extra special bitter, or Irish red? How about Belgian Dubbel, Tripel, or Quadruple? How about fruit lambic or gueuze?